FEARING

For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard. Yet God, in his grace, freely makes us right in his sight. He did this through Christ Jesus when he freed us from the penalty for our sins. For God presented Jesus as the sacrifice for sin. People are made right with God when they believe that Jesus sacrificed his life, shedding his blood. [Romans 3:23-25 (NLT)]

I thought of Mr. Fearing in John Bunyan’s allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress when a friend told me about her mother who was nearing the end of her life. Although a Christian, she believed there was something in her distant past for which she couldn’t be forgiven. Even though her family reassured her that Jesus died for her sins and God is faithful to His promises, she still seemed fearful of taking that final journey home.

In Bunyan’s tale, Mr. Fearing’s story is told by his guide to the Celestial City, Mr. Great Heart. Even though Fearing escaped the Swamp of Despondence, he seemed to carry that despondence in his mind everywhere he went. When Fearing came to the gate where it said, “Knock and the door will be opened to you,” he was afraid to knock. Sure that he was unworthy of entrance, he stood back and allowed others to take his place whenever the door opened. When he eventually had the gumption to timidly knock, Fearing fainted in unbelief when the door was opened for him.

Accompanied by Mr. Great Heart, Mr. Fearing continued on his journey. He effortlessly hiked straight up the Hill of Difficulty, showed no fear when he encountered lions, and easily walked down into the Valley of Humiliation. When the travelers had to pass through Vanity Fair (a place ruled by Beelzebub and filled with evil temptations), Mr. Fearing had no difficulty staying on the Way and, while others fell asleep in the Enchanted Ground (the land of spiritual lethargy), Fearing stayed alert. But, believing himself unworthy of God’s grace, his shame kept him from enjoying the blessings God provided on the journey and caused him to be afraid of death and the journey’s end.

Mr. Fearing wasn’t afraid of difficulties, danger, or challenges to his faith but, because he had doubts about his welcome in the Celestial City, he was terrified of death and Hell. His fear was that of his final acceptance—that God would reject him! Sure that he’d drown and never see the face of the King he’d traveled so far to meet, he was afraid to cross the River of Death: the only way to the Celestial City. Both Fearing and my friend’s mother eventually crossed that river and were welcomed because all of their sins had been forgiven.

As Good Heart related the story of Mr. Fearing to Christiana and her fellow pilgrims, they shared their fears about their own salvation—fears that many of us may share. Bunyan experienced this same fear; in his autobiography, he said that early in his conversion Satan tempted him to unbelief by declaring his sins unpardonable. Bunyan’s reply to the enemy simply was, “Well, I will pray.”

Indeed, it’s difficult to believe in God’s extravagant grace: that, as soiled and unworthy as we are, we’ve been washed clean in the blood of the Lamb. Let us remember—the burden of our sins fell off at the foot of the cross! God didn’t sacrifice His son for us because we deserved it; He did out of love for us! Jesus Christ died for us while we were still sinners, not saints! When we fear our welcome in God’s heavenly realm, let us do as did John Bunyan: let us pray!

For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. [John 3:16 (NLT)]

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SATURDAYS

We are pressed on every side by troubles, but we are not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but we are not destroyed. [2 Corinthians 4:8 (NLT)]

For many of us, last Saturday was probably spent preparing for Easter. We may have picked up people at the airport, done last minute shopping, purchased an Easter lily, decorated eggs, assembled Easter baskets, snacked on jelly beans, or hidden plastic eggs around the yard. Although the previous day, Good Friday, had been a somber one, we knew that the next day, Easter, would be one of joy and celebration. Knowing how the story ended, we didn’t mourn or feel abandoned. But what of the disciples on the Saturday after his crucifixion?

The Bible is strangely silent about that Saturday. We assume that, being good Jews, they observed the Sabbath day quietly, but that’s about it. Did they do any of things associated with Jewish mourning: tearing of clothes, wearing sack cloth and ashes, fasting, or prayer? As Job’s friends had done, did they gather together and sit shiva (as one would for a parent, child, sibling or spouse)? Was their seven day period of mourning interrupted when they learned of the empty tomb?

That one Saturday 2,000 years ago, everyone thought they’d never see Him again and what a dark day it was! Jesus—their leader, closest friend, and hope—was dead and gone. The agony of despair and defeat must have been unbearable. Was there regret or anger that they’d given up their homes and livelihoods for their failed Messiah? Think of their heartache and the many would’ves, could’ves, and should’ves as they wished they’d only known Thursday’s meal was the last time they’d be together! Think of their remorse for having fallen asleep while Jesus prayed, the shame of abandoning Him in the garden, and Peter’s self-reproach for denying Him. Were they also afraid of being arrested and suffering the same kind of death?

The disciples never fully understood when He’d spoken of dying. Not believing that He’d be crucified and buried, they didn’t seem to expect Jesus to return and didn’t trust the women when they said the tomb was empty. Jesus had said, “It is finished!” Not understanding what He’d finished and seeing no future, they’d lost hope.

Perhaps the gospel writers chose not to tell us about that gloomy Saturday because the disciples weren’t especially proud of it. Yet, they told about Peter’s denials, Thomas’ doubt, and James and John wanting places of honor. Perhaps there’s no mention of that Saturday because we’re not meant to dwell in the Saturdays of our lives.

I’m not talking about the day we get the chores done, take the kids to practice, or watch Saturday Night Live. I’m speaking of the times when disaster, despair, regrets, or anguish assault us and we can’t see tomorrow because of the darkness of today. The disciples’ Saturday lasted only 24-hours; unfortunately, our Saturdays often last much longer.

The disciples didn’t know that hopeless Saturday was simply a day between despair and joy, but we do. Because Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday, we know that we have not been abandoned. Because Jesus gave us His Holy Spirit when He ascended into heaven 40 days later, we know that we’ll never be alone. No matter how long our Saturdays are, we have no reason for despair, fear or anxiety. Whether in this world or the next, a glorious Sunday eventually will come.

And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20b (NLT)]

So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most. [Hebrews 4:16 (NLT)]

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HIDDEN IN PLAIN SIGHT

Then Jesus said to them [Cleophas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus], “You foolish people! You find it so hard to believe all that the prophets wrote in the Scriptures. Wasn’t it clearly predicted that the Messiah would have to suffer all these things before entering his glory?” Then Jesus took them through the writings of Moses and all the prophets, explaining from all the Scriptures the things concerning himself. [Luke 24:25-27 (NLT)]

giant swallowtailWhile cleaning out the bookshelves recently, I came across one of my children’s favorite books: Richard Scarry’s What Do People Do All Day? A small drawing of Lowly Worm, an earthworm wearing a Tyrolean hat, red bow tie, and one shoe on the end of his tail, is hidden somewhere on every page of the book and I immediately started searching for him. I hope you don’t think it sacrilegious, but thinking of Lowly Worm, a character who silently makes his presence known throughout Scarry’s books, made me think of Jesus and how He’s quietly present in all of Scripture.

Unlike Lowly Worm, Jesus isn’t an imaginary character hiding on the pages of a children’s book; He’s the living breathing Messiah and we find evidence of Him throughout the Old Testament. Although most people’s lives are chronicled after they’re born, Jesus’s story began long before the night He appeared in Bethlehem. As part of our Triune God, He was there at the beginning of time. When Jesus told the religious scholars, “Before Abraham was, I am,” [John 8:58] He echoed God’s words to Moses, “I am who I am.” [Exodus 3:4]

While it’s not difficult to spot Lowly Worm on the pages of Scarry’s books, it’s harder to spot Jesus in the Old Testament, especially if we haven’t met Him in the New. Psalm 77, for example, tells of a God who makes the water afraid and who can make a path through the waters while Job mentions a God who can trample the seas. Both references sound a lot like Jesus walking on water and stilling the Sea of Galilee. Micah says the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem and Isaiah states that a virgin would conceive Him. If we didn’t know about Jesus, however, we wouldn’t recognize Him in those words. Genesis and Numbers say He will be a descendant of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Judah and the star mentioned in the Numbers’ prophecy is probably what brought the Magi to Judah in search of Jesus. Jeremiah tells us that the Messiah will be from the lineage of David, Malachi that He will be preceded by a forerunner, Zechariah that the Messiah will appear riding a donkey and be betrayed for thirty pieces of silver, and Psalms that lots will be cast for His clothing, His hands and feet will be pierced, and His bones would not be broken. Once we know what we’re looking for, we can find Jesus throughout the Old Testament in the descriptions of God and in the more than 300 prophecies He fulfilled.

We also can spot Jesus in the Old Testament’s words that are repeated by Him in the New. In Deuteronomy, for example, we find Jesus’s replies to Satan long before His temptation in the wilderness. We find the two greatest commandments in all four gospels but also in Deuteronomy and Leviticus. We catch glimpses of the Beatitudes’ words in books like Proverbs, with its promise that the lowly in spirit (humble) will obtain honor; Isaiah, with the promise to comfort those who mourn; and Psalms, with the promise that the one with clean hands and a pure heart will ascend the hill of the Lord. Jesus wasn’t just a great Torah scholar repeating someone else’s words. Those words were God-breathed and He was the original author!

Let’s not make the mistake of thinking of the Old and New Testaments as two different unrelated books: pre-Jesus and post-Jesus. Jesus is present throughout Scripture from Genesis through Revelation. But, like the pictures of Lowly Worm, sometimes we have to search for Him.

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. … For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” [John 5:39-40,47 (ESV)]

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BE STRONG AND COURAGEOUS

UtahThis is my command—be strong and courageous! Do not be afraid or discouraged. For the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.” [Joshua 1:6a,9 (NLT)]

Joshua 1:9 was my Bible verse for the day but I decided to make it my verse for the week. To make sure I kept it in mind, I wrote it on a post-a-note and stuck it where I’d be sure to see it: on my phone!

Wanting to put this inspirational verse in context, I reread the first chapter of Joshua. The book of Joshua is about the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham made four hundred years earlier. Its first chapter is one of my favorite chapters of the Old Testament narratives. To set the stage: Israel is camped on the east side of the Jordan River with the Promised Land in sight. Forty years have passed since the parting of the Red Sea. Moses is dead and only Caleb and Joshua remain of the adults who’d once been slaves in Egypt. The Israelites are standing on the edge of the unknown and the Jordan River is at flood stage. With no bridges or ferry boats, they must have wondered how they’d manage to get safely to the other side. Joshua is the new leader of the Israelites and God tells him to be strong and courageous.

Granted, God’s words were spoken to Joshua around 1400 BC in an entirely different setting but, because I’m standing on the edge of the unknown as well, God’s words to Joshua are both comforting and encouraging. Then again, we’re all standing on the edge of the unknown. None of us know what tomorrow (or even the rest of today) will bring: be it good news or bad, tornadoes or sunny skies, an accident or a near miss, the making of a new friend or the loss of an old one.

When Joshua is told to be strong, God wasn’t talking about working out at the gym. This strength had nothing to do with muscles unless, of course, we’re talking about spiritual muscles. It had to do with having the strength to prevail, withstand, and sustain. Being of good courage, is more than not being a fearful coward; it’s being alert both physically and mentally, steadfast, and determined. It wasn’t powerful foes or a lack of weapons, battle strategy, or seasoned warriors that threatened Israel; it was fear, discouragement, and weakness of faith.

Being strong and courageous is easier said than done. Nevertheless, God tells Joshua exactly how to do that: meditate on and obey the instructions in the Torah (the first five books of the Bible and the only scripture at the time). Authored by God through Moses, those books contained the people’s history and God’s law, promises and plan. If the Israelites had only done that, the Old Testament would be an entirely different (and far less violent) story! 3,400 years later, we’re no longer limited to a mere five books; we have both Old and New Testaments to make us strong and courageous. Just the same, knowing and obeying those words can be as much of a problem for us as it was for the Israelites.

At least for me, the best part of Joshua 1:9 is God’s promise that He is with us wherever we go. Whether we’re crossing a deep river or just going across the street, confronting an enemy army or a CT scan, or facing a walled city or the loss of a spouse, we know that, no matter what befalls us, God is with us. When we’re standing at an abyss, facing the great unknown, there is no need to be afraid or discouraged. We can be strong and courageous because we have his promise in writing; He is always with us, “even to the end of the age.”

If the Lord be with us, we have no cause of fear. His eye is upon us, His arm over us, His ear open to our prayer – His grace sufficient, His promise unchangeable. [John Newton]

Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:20 (NLT)]

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GOING HOME

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. [John 14:1-4 (ESV)]

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die.” [John 11:25-26 (ESV)]

After a brief stay at hospital, we’d brought Gert, my 102-year old mother-in-law, home to die. Although she was a woman of faith, she seemed frightened of the journey that lay ahead of her and kept calling for her mother and father (who’ve been gone for more than half a century). When I shared this with the Hospice nurse, she asked if I’d told her that it was all right to leave. Since Gert was in a state of semi-consciousness, I questioned whether she would understand but the nurse assured me that hearing is the last sense to go.

That day, as I sat at her side, I read to Gert from the Bible, prayed with her, thanked her, and reminded her of her favorite memories. I knew them well since, not wanting to lose her amazing history when we lost her, I’d asked her about them (and written them down) several years ago. While talking to her that afternoon, I remembered a story Gert told me. Beginning with, “I believe in prayer!” she told of a cold winter day when she’d met some friends at a resort across the lake from her house. On her way home that evening, she took a short cut across the frozen lake (probably something the twelve-year-old had been told not to do). “I heard the ice cracking all around me,” she related, “and, believe me, I honestly thought I was a goner that time!” Sure that she’d fall through the ice and no one would ever find her, the terrified girl recited everything she had ever learned in her Sunday school classes. Having seen the “Star Memory Certificate” she’d received as a girl, I knew that included the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, the Beatitudes, the 23rd Psalm, and all of the books of the Bible.

I reminded her of that cold winter night when she was a child and how her faith had gotten her across the ice and safely home to her mother and father. Telling her I understood the walk was frightening, I reassured her that she wasn’t a goner and we’d all know where to find her. Reading from the book of John, I reminded her that God had prepared a room especially for her and that, across the daunting lake was that room and her home: a home where the lights were on, the fire was lit, and her loved ones were waiting for her with spritz cookies and a warm cup of cocoa. Calmed and almost serene, Gert went to her forever home early that evening.

Gert once told me she loved the 23rd psalm but added that she always skipped “that one line.” Sunday afternoon, when I read that beautiful psalm to her, I included all of its comforting words. I spoke to Gert of that dark valley and God’s reassurance that He is beside her, just as He was that cold night ninety years ago. While I’ve always thought of our Christian faith as comforting to those who mourn, that afternoon reminded me of how comforting it is for those taking their final journey through the dark valley of death. Although neither family nor friends can accompany us on our last walk, we will not be alone and, waiting on the other side, is a beautiful room  prepared especially for us in our eternal home.

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. … Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever. [Psalm 23:4,6 (ESV)]

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NO APPOINTMENT NECESSARY

sanderlingsFor I am the Lord, your healer. [Exodus 15:26b (RSV)]

In that hour he cured many of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many that were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. [Luke 7:21-22 (RSV)]

Here in southwest Florida it’s “season,” which means that flocks of snowbirds have arrived (and I don’t mean the kind with wings). While they boost the economy, locals groan at the busy traffic, the difficulty of getting into their favorite restaurants or hair salons, and the scarcity of parking places. One of the biggest problems is seeing a doctor! If we can find a doctor (or dentist) who is taking new patients (a challenge in itself) and takes our insurance, we’ll find a two month or longer wait before getting an appointment. Then, if we’re referred to a specialist, the whole routine begins again. As for urgent care clinics; unless the situation is life threatening, there is nothing urgent about the care one eventually receives. My best advice during season is not to get sick!

Our God truly is the Great Physician but, unlike the doctors in our town, He’ll take new patients. He won’t make us fill out detailed medical history forms; rather than past illnesses, He’s concerned about our wellness in the present and future. Insured or uninsured, Medicare or Medicaid, co-pay or no pay, it makes no difference; Jesus already paid our fee. God will never turn us away as incurable or hopeless because there are no lost causes in His office and He’ll never refer us to someone else because He specializes in whatever is ailing us. Best of all: no appointment is ever needed. God operates a walk-in clinic where the waiting room aways is empty and the doctor always is in!

At first, God being available 24/7 and taking His time during an appointment sounds like the concierge medicine that has become so popular in our area. God, however, doesn’t limit the number of patients in His practice nor does He require a hefty retainer fee before He gives you His number or listens to your complaint. God never takes a vacation and always has enough time and energy to deal with everyone who calls Him. Like a concierge physician, however, God is strong on preventative medicine: regular prayer, Bible study, Christian fellowship, and eating frequently at His table.

Of course, as with any physician, if we don’t recognize our sickness and the need for healing, we won’t call Him. We must have faith in our doctor’s wisdom and skill and follow his directions completely and we must do the same with our Great Physician. While He won’t be prescribing Lipitor, a flu shot, or more exercise, He’ll probably prescribe a healthy dose of repentance, forgiveness, love and prayer. Instead of giving us medical brochures about our condition, He’s already provided us with something better than the Merck Manual: Holy Scripture. As for any sort of long-term therapy—among other things, God is sure to recommend Christian community and service.

Our Great Physician hears our painful cries and heals our troubled souls. Thank you, God.

And when Jesus heard it, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” [Mark 2:17 (RSV)]

As for me, I said, “O Lord, be gracious to me; heal me, for I have sinned against thee!” [Psalm 41:4 (RSV)]

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